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Lost art of proper relaxation

Discussion in 'Skills and Smarts' started by St. Louis, Apr 12, 2015.

  1. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    I think this counts as a "skill" or a "smart." Didn't people in the golden era relax with more grace and propriety? Or maybe they just never photographed each other sacked out on the couch in tatty socks and worn-out bathrobes? Whenever I've seen any images of folks taking it easy, they always look very proper. Take a look at these 1935 undergraduate students in their lounge:


    Or else you see something like this -- families in their living rooms, sitting properly and dressed nicely with shoes on:


    I know this lady would be ashamed of me in my slatternly ways, if she ever saw me lollygagging on the couch:

    Last edited: Apr 12, 2015
  2. I think one of the reasons you didn't see photos that didn't look posed is that it wasn't until the late thirties that "candid" cameras were introduced using 35mm film, and even with these the film was usually too slow to take decent indoor photos without flashes or extra lighting. Not many people had cameras like this until after the war -- most people who had cameras had box Brownies or folding Kodaks, neither of which were much good indoors.

    As far as relaxation goes, the image that always comes to mind to me is my grandfather, in work pants with the suspenders dangling and a union suit with the top buttons undone, sitting in his rocking chair in the kitchen with his feet in the oil stove's bun-warmer compartment for that extra bit of warmth.
  3. Based on some reading and from what my parents and grandparent told me, I think part of it has to do with how people thought about pictures when they first became part of the culture. People thought - wow, this is a permanent record and others will see this - so they tried to look their best for the pictures. And society overall at that time had a cultural norm to look "proper" in public and in your home if guest were coming over; so having a picture taken that would be seen by others was just another time to look "proper."

    Today, our cultural norm is "authenticity" not "faking it," so we get all these casual and candid shots. Also, the camera is ubiquitous today and taking pictures so easy and inexpensive, that it would be hard to "pose" for each one. I do think, overall, people tried to be more "proper" in the Era, but there was plenty of slaking and being sloppy and lazy at home. So don't worry too much about lying on the couch (God knows I don't) - they probably did it too, they just wouldn't let it be caught on film.
  4. Furthermore, if I want to relax at home, why is it "improper" to do so not wearing a three-piece suit and polished shoes?
    MissNathalieVintage likes this.
  5. I know that this is a cultural thing, but we do not wear shoes in the house. Slippers/ sandals are OK, but hard soled shoes, sneakers, and leather soled shoes that are worn outside are not. My great-grandmother (mother's grandmother) on down in my family have not allowed shoes to be worn in the house.

    My grandmother used to say that shoes in the house were acceptable if you had a dirt floor. We don't.

    I also grew up on a farm, and on a farm, you don't wear your "sunday go to meetin'" clothes around the house, you change from your "work clothes" when you come home into your "farm clothes." Despite not having lived on a farm for fifteen years, I cannot break this habit. In fact, I'm sitting on my couch now in "farm clothes," which are typically ratty things that haven't made the rag bucket yet. If I go out (shopping, etc.) I change.
  6. Along those lines, here's Navy petty officer Hugh Massman in 1943, sitting down to eat in his undershirt. According to the captions supplied in this series of documentary photos taken by the OWI, he habitually took off his uniform blouse while at home to keep it from getting stained.

  7. While I wasn't required to wear formal attire to the table, an undershirt would have got me smacked and sent back to put on a proper shirt. You didn't come to the table barefoot, wearing a hat or wearing only your underwear.

    Of course, there really wasn't much of a "relaxation" component at the dinner table either.
  8. Hugh also did the dishes and folded diapers in his undershirt.


  9. I frequently remember seeing my grandfather wear just his undershirt when I was a kid. He changed his "work" clothes in the back "landing" (the back house door opened into a landing on a set of stairs that led to the basement). My grandfather also worked two jobs- one at a rolling mill and ran his own garage. He was constantly working, doing dirty work. Once he retired, he went to working in his garage full time. When he took his coveralls off, he pulled on a pair of pants, but never bothered with a shirt if he was coming in for a quick meal before returning to the garage, which he did after every meal unless he was feeling ill. He also would do yard work in his undershirt when it was very hot.

    I don't think my grandmother had him change his shirt because it would have produced more wash. My grandmother was always practical about housework. She wanted a sparkling house, and that meant she needed to be practical about how much she did in regards to laundry, etc.
  10. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    Thinking about my own maternal grandparents, who ran a small subsistence farm and a vineyard, I think they must have had very old-fashioned attitudes about all that. I simply can't picture either of them relaxing on a couch, ever. They sat in the kitchen talking, reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, or knitting (my grandma always had something on the needles). There was always some chore in the barn or other that required some dirty work, so I don't think they dressed up in the evenings. But we were not permitted to show up at the dinner table without shoes & socks on, and I'm almost positive that my grandma took off her apron and my grandpa put on a clean shirt for dinner.

    I know they had special rules about Sunday. No undue noise, no dirty clothes, no running amuck on the street outside our house. Even when my own family moved to a New Jersey suburb, my mother took those values with her. She was horrified that I wanted to go on a hike (on a Sunday, yet!) wearing blue jeans. Nothing doing.
  11. My grandparents weren't couch-sprawlers either -- my grandfather sat in an armchair with the top button of his pants undone, the better to relax his paunch, and either watched or listened to the ballgame. Nobody was allowed to bother him because, in his words, "I've been kissing a***s for twelve hours, and I want some peace and quiet."

    My grandmother had her own armchair, and we kids did the couch-sprawling, or sat on the floor. I had a little upholstered stool that was my own personal seat for these evenings, and I still have it -- it's under my desk as a footrest even as I type this. When my grandmother's health declined, they got rid of the couch altogether and moved her bed into the living room, and she had a little stand next to it with her adding machine and her ledgers so she could do the bookkeeping without having to get up.
  12. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Before central heating, the only way to be comfortable in winter was with warm clothing. If you could afford it, a wing back chair (to keep off drafts) in front of the fireplace, carpet slippers instead of shoes, and a smoking jacket in place of your suit coat and you were ready to relax with a brandy, cigar and a good book.

    In other words they weren't being formal they were trying to keep from freezing.

    Poorer people could get comfortable in front of the kitchen stove which had to be kept going all day for heat and cooking.
  13. This thread forced me to think harder about the only two living grandparents I had who have now both been dead for over 40 years (they did before I was ten). Before they got very sick, neither of them would have sprawled out on a couch or even been in casual attire during the day or evening hours when someone might visits. And in truth, until they got very sick at the end of their lives, they never got as relaxed as we do today.

    My one grandfather (on my mom's side) almost always (maybe always) wore a tie and my grandmother (on my dad's side) when always nicely dressed and "made up." And neither of then had any money to speak of and they lived in rental apartments, nor where they putting on airs (both were straight shooters who had gone through too much poverty and, my for my grandfather - the hell of WWI - to be anything else), but there was just a sense of being more formal should someone come over than even my parents had and, of course, than I have.

    It wasn't even - or didn't feel to me - like they even thought about it, it just was the way they lived.
  14. St. Louis

    St. Louis Practically Family

    Right, that's exactly what I meant by "proper" in the thread title. There was a right way to do things, even relaxing in the evening. I think in my grandparents' case, they were too tired from the day's work to stay up that long anyway. I don't know this for a fact (because I had an earlier bedtime) assume they must have turned in by 9:00 most evenings. So there was probably less temptation to relax on couches in any case. And the only couch in their house was in the parlor, which (to my memory) was never used at all, ever.
  15. The danger is drawing the conclusion that this type of "proper" relaxation was an "Era" thing as opposed to a demographic thing. Social and economic class, ethnicity, geography, and even religious affiliation have more to do with this type of behavior than the chronological period in which it occurs. All things considered, you wouldn't find too many tenement families, factory hands, sharecroppers, or other such types sitting around in the evening with ties and similar formalwear on, in 1937, 1927, or 1897. Such families were unlikely to even own a couch, rendering the sprawling question irrelevant. It was more common in tenement neighborhoods, for example, to sit outside on the stoop or the fire escape in the evening, watching the world go by.

    One good place to look for real-world imagery of this type of thing is the "How America Lives" series of articles published in the Ladies Home Journal in the early forties. These articles profiled a wide range of American families across all social, economic, and geographic classes, and you'll see a very wide variance in the look of the people profiled, both at work and at home. While the photos are posed, they were intended to document how people actually lived, and offer a reasonable representation of reality.

    There's no online archive of these articles, but they're well worth looking up in hard copies.
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2015
  16. As always, Lizzie powers through with outstanding points, references and context. I think an assumption I was making (and maybe some others) is that I was comparing, in my recent post, my grandparents and their friends (as best I knew them) with what happens today. But of course, the demographic, class, ethnicity, etc. bias Lizzie references would need to be addressed to make a broader statement.

    So let me restate my thoughts (as this thread is causing them to continually evolve which is what I love so much about FL - it forces me to think harder about my assumptions about the past) - my grandparents and their friends - who were similar in class, ethnicity, region to my girlfriend and me (I feel economically better off because most of all have so much more stuff than our grandparents did, but I'm only probably somewhat better off [they had one TV, I have two, but inflation adjusted, they probably spent more on the one than I have on the two]) - would never have relaxed - dressed casually, spread out in a chair, chatted extremely informally - as my girlfriend and our friends do today.

    This is far from scientific, the sample size is too small, but I think it reasonably holds constant for most of the relevant factors Lizzie references. So if my small sample is representative of what I like to call the "Wonder Years" class (based on the TV show - we had food and shelter and a few of life's less-expensive luxuries, but no fancy cars, jet plane trips, etc.), in the Northeast, then our grandparents would never have relaxed the way we do. They were more formal in almost every aspect - other than close friends, people were called Mr. and Mrs., for example.

    I can even see the transition from my parents - who are less formal than my grandparents but more so than I am - but again, it this is a personal observation about a narrow demographic of a non-scientific sized sample.
  17. I never saw that kind of formality in any generation of my family -- everybody on our street was on a first name basis with everybody else. Even my mother called her father "Clifford," although she still called her mother "mama." But the people across the street were "Fred and Althea," not "Mr. and Mrs. Doliber," even to the kids. If you didn't know them well, you called them by their full name -- "Margaret Thompson up the street wanted I should give you this." "Ma's over to Judy Kenow's, and she didn't say when she's coming back." The only people we ever called "Mr." or "Mrs." were schoolteachers. This was true of my generation forty and fifty years ago, this was true of my mother's generation, and this was true even in my grandparents' time. We were a lot of things in our neighborhood, but formal wasn't one of them.

    We saw the kind of formality you're talking about on TV shows, and thought it was goofy because nobody we knew acted like that. It wasn't until Archie Bunker came along in the early seventies that we finally saw someone whose general mannerisms resembled those of people we knew. Archie never called his neighbors "mister," he never wore a tie if he could help it, and his posture left a lot to be desired. We recognized that as being "just like real people," whereas we always thought Ward and June and their friends were the bunk.

    "Wonder Years" type suburbia was largely a middle-class environment, especially in its cultural sense, and beyond that, the very nature of suburbia instilled a certain emotional distance among the people who lived there. The social critic John Keats wrote extensively about this in his 1956 study "The Crack in The Picture Window," noting how the first generation of suburbanites were basically an artificially-created community, with people who didn't know, and might not especially like, each other being thrown together into very close proximity in an evironment in which strict conformity tended to be enforced as a way of avoiding or minimizing conflict.

    The nature of many of early suburbia's developments also fostered an acute sense of class-consciousness -- most of the first wave of suburban families had come from working-class urban backgrounds, and being thrown into a new environment where all the streets were straight and all the houses were identical led them to what they imagined to be "middle class" habits of propriety in order to "fit in," even though most of their neighbors were from Bushwick or Greenpoint or Bensonhurst and were in the same boat they were and were adopting the same tactics themselves. Seen this way, Keats suggests that such punctilious attention to formality was a way of keeping your distance from people you didn't especially like or want to get to know.
  18. While I say "Wonder Years" we lived in an old town - just a newer (1960s developed) part of it (so it wasn't attractive). (Until later when we moved when I was older), we walked to school, the park and the town (although, if mom was doing some real food buying, she'd take the car as it was a decent walk to carry bags of groceries). I use the "Wonder Years" label as they were pretty close economically and, kinda, culturally to us and the families around us.

    My parents where less formal than my grandparents as they were half and half on the Mr. / Mrs. versus first name thing - but my two living grandparents were 90%+ of the time using Mr. and Mrs.
  19. Stanley Doble

    Stanley Doble Call Me a Cab

    Like Lizzie I come from a working class background and shows like Father Knows Best did not reflect reality as we knew it either. But who expected it to? It was a show, it was supposed to be phony. They might as well have had a pet unicorn in the back yard, or a beautiful genie who popped out of a bottle in a cloud of smoke.

    At the time such shows were criticized for being unrealistic and I thought the critics were dumb. Did they suppose everything on TV was a documentary? If TV, movies and radio were imitations of real life who would bother watching them or listening to them? We could shut off the noise box and look at each other if we wanted reality but who wanted that?
    Last edited: Apr 14, 2015
  20. When I was young, we used to visit both sets of grandparents often. My Dad's side were older, born just at, and after, the turn of the 20th century. The other side was about 10 years younger.

    When I was a kid, I guess I supposed that what I saw on those visits was everyday life. The women cooked and served, then cleaned up, and I don't think ever sat down, which was a skill the men, their husbands, were particularly good at.

    But I don't suppose now that their lives were like that every day. There had to be down time when they didn't have company. I'll have to ask my parents if they remember a more typical day when they were children. How did their parents, my grandparents, relax? Of course, their explanations will reflect mostly the 1940s which is when they were children, and not what I saw in the 1960s and early '70s.

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